[This was presented to our congregation a few years ago by one of our elders. I’ve edited the text slightly to eliminate references that would make no sense to those not familiar with our ministers and ministries. This is kind of long, but I thought it best to lay it out as a whole.]
Introduction: Are we facing a crisis in how we understand church?
Many scholars say that we are failing our members and Jesus by how we approach church. While our church’s ministries may be fine (may be what we’re used to), why settle for fine when the Holy Spirit is leading us to become the best church we can be?
To illustrate the problems sparking this crisis, we want to talk first about youth ministry, but this is not by any means just a youth ministry problem.
The problem demonstrated by youth ministry
Less than 10 years ago, a large Church of Christ with a great preacher and a great youth minister called our campus minister and told him we’d have 22 of their high school graduates join our campus ministry that fall. Our campus minister worked hard to contact them. He held summer events to introduce them to the ministry.
But out of 22 students who enrolled at Alabama, not one was active in our church. Not one. And none was active in any student ministry of any church of any denomination.
They had a great youth program, loved their youth minister, had Christian parents — and not a one attended a church of any kind while in college. And this is no isolated example.
There’s a problem with youth ministry.
A few years ago, we asked our campus minister where his best, most committed, most active students come from. He answered, “From churches without youth ministries.”
We discussed the students who were active in the campus ministry at that time. Several were from large, well-funded youth ministries. But the leaders and the most committed were from small churches without youth ministers.
There’s a problem with youth ministry.
Studies show that, on average, only 35% of students who were active in church in high school remain active in college.
Think back on all our children who’ve graduated from high school and no longer attend church here or anywhere.
This year, we had 18 graduate. How many will be in church after Labor Day?
Studies show that many will return to church after they marry and have children. Why? Evidently because they think church is great for children and meaningless for adults.
What do we do that leaves that impression?
We’ve been praying and meditating on this question for a long time. And we have some ideas we want to share with the congregation.
And we’re not the only ones who’ve noticed the problem. Youth ministers and professors of youth ministry across the nation and in all denominations have noticed. All the youth ministers who’ve served here have wrestled with this problem.
We’ve consulted with Robert Oglesby, who directs Abilene Christian’s Center for Youth and Family Ministry. We’ve consulted with our children’s and youth ministers. And we’ve studied the literature. And we’ve been praying about this problem for years.
The solution, we believe, will come from all of us living out the Word of God.
Jesus as model
You see, there’s also a problem with how we view adult ministry. We can’t redefine youth ministry unless we also redefine adult ministry.
The biggest problem with our current understanding of ministry is that we have not allowed ourselves to be fully formed in the image of Jesus.
Here’s the text that teaches us about both youth and adult ministry —
(Phi 2:1-8 ESV) So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
One of the most-important themes of scripture is that we are to follow Jesus as our example. “Christian” means “Christ-like.”
To be a disciple of Jesus, Ray Vander Laan teaches, is to want — more than anything — to be just like the rabbi.
And every single time the scriptures mention Jesus as an example, the lesson is one of serving others, humility, submission, and dying to self.
When Paul discusses the advantages of being single in 1 Cor 7, he doesn’t use Jesus as an example. When he teaches us to pray without ceasing, he doesn’t give Jesus as an example. And Jesus is never held up as an example of being a great evangelist.
Rather, in the New Testament, Jesus is always an example of becoming a servant (often, literally, a “slave”!), of humility, and of dying for others.
This is the very core of Christianity. It must therefore be the core of how we see church and how we design our ministries and programs.
Now, the opposite of being like Jesus is selfishness. Nothing is more un-Christlike than a self-seeking attitude. “What’s in for me?” is anti-Christian.
And yet the traditional youth program and adult ministry are presented to the congregation in terms of “You should do this because of what’s in it for you.”
That’s bad leadership by us. We have to change to become a church that’s all about what’s in it for others — all others.
Older and younger members
Here’s another passage that changes how we view ministry —
(Tit 2:2-8 ESV) 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6 Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.
7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.
The biblical model is that older members teach younger members. Verse 7 teaches that a leader must be “a model of good works.”
For most teens, of course, the most important models of good works are the teen’s parents. Teens spend far more time with their parents than with the youth minister or volunteers in the youth ministry. Parents should always be the most important spiritual influence on their teens — not the only influence, but the most important influence.
This was God’s design from the beginning:
(Deut 6:6-9 NIV) 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.
Parents should always be teaching their children about their faith!
Therefore, the first principle of how to run a good youth program is to stop trying to replace the parents with a youth minister.
It’s the parents’ job to do the parenting. It’s the church’s job to walk alongside the parents and help them, encourage them, and support them in every way possible.
Now, parenting is about more than school work, baseball, and ballet. Parents are responsible to teach their children about Jesus and about faith. But very few of us grew up in homes where our own parents talked to us about their own faith. Most of us parents didn’t have parents that taught us how to do this. And so we need help.
And that’s part of what a good youth ministry should do: walk alongside parents and encourage them to be godly, faithful parents for their children.
Our children’s minister has already initiated this concept in our children’s program. Our youth ministers have begun to do this in the teen program. But we have a long way yet to go.
And that’s not enough. As important as talking about faith with our children is, much more important is demonstrating our faith. We’ve observed over the years that, by and large, the children who remain faithful are those who’ve seen their parents being active in ministry. Actions speak louder than words.
We know many, many parents who are great Christians, full of faith and good works, but who serve in ways that are invisible to their children. And kids are kids. They only know what they see.
And so the second thing a good youth ministry should do is help parents live their faith in the presence of their children. It may be by praying with your daughter for her classmates or taking the kids along as you feed the hungry or volunteering for tornado relief.
This next point is hard to explain. So let’s start with an example —
A few years ago, the teens did an event called the 30-Hour Famine. They fasted to raise money to help feed starving children in other countries. It was an intense weekend preceded by weeks of instruction on how much poverty there is in other countries. It was a great event.
But the rest of the church knew very little about it until the final day, when we loudly applauded the efforts of the teens.
What lessons did the teens learn?
- That children around the world are starving and need our help.
- That the problem of poverty is so important that it’s worth skipping meals and being hungry ourselves to help others have enough food to live.
- That the church loves the teens and supports them in their sacrifice and good works.
- That adults don’t skip meals for others, but they sure appreciate it when the teens do.
- That the adults evidently love their own children but don’t much love the starving children in Africa.
Now, imagine that this same event had been done on a church-wide basis. Imagine that from age 1 to age 100 —
- We heard lessons on starvation in the rest of the world
- We raised money to help starving children
- We skipped meals for 30 hours and gave the savings to feed the hungry
- We did this as a church and as families.
- We celebrated at the end with a common celebration.
What would the teens learn from such an experience?
- That adults, including their parents, care about the poor and starving as much as they do.
- That adults participate in this program, not just because they love their own children (which even the pagans do), but because they love the children in other nations who are starving.
- That adults are just as much about love for others and ministry as the teens.
- That we can do more and better things together as a church than we can do as several separate age-group ministries.
Which would have a bigger and better impact on the teens? Which would be truer to the texts we just read from Philippians and Titus? In which case would the adults act more like Jesus?
Let’s take another example. Consider a typical short-term mission trip or service mission for teens. Here’s how the traditional kind of trip goes —
- The teen minister picks a location designed to make sure the teens learn valuable life lessons.
- The teen minister recruits parents to help with the trip, because the trip requires chaperones, cooks, and drivers.
- The rest of the church knows next to nothing about the trip. Most parents stay home.
- The kids return and report how much they enjoyed the trip and the valuable life lessons they learned.
One lesson they learn is that adults only went on the trip to serve the teens. The teens therefore perceive themselves as the object of the mission. And that’s because the trip was in fact designed as a service to the teens.
Consider another way of doing missions and service projects –
- A group of adults have a passion for orphans in the Bahamas. They love those orphans so much that they’d go whether or not the teens go. The trip is all about the mission, not the teens.
- The mission needs the kind of volunteer work that teens and college students can do, and so the mission is opened up to everyone old enough to help.
- Because the mission is paramount, the leaders pinch their pennies and make the trip as affordable as possible, even if that makes the trip much less comfortable and take longer.
- When they get to the mission point, they work hard. They make friends with the kids and adults they meet. Some adults fall so in love with the orphans they invite one to come to the US to live with them in their home. Some try to adopt other orphans and bring them home.
The teens have a great experience. They learn valuable life lessons. Among these are —
- Adults serve others sacrificially — like Jesus — because they find great joy in sacrificial service.
- The teens are deeply loved, but the mission is about the Bahamians, not the teens.
Church is about becoming more and more like Jesus every day, and this is done through works of service as well as through class. It’s about giving yourself up for others. And the adults already do this. And church is the best place to learn to be even more like Jesus. The church is about Jesus.
Do you see the difference? When we make mission about the teens, then we teach the teens that they are the center of the universe. When we make the mission about others — as a matter of selflessly emptying ourselves — we teach the teens how to become adult Christians and how to become like Jesus. And the entire church changes.
At all ages — children’s ministry through ministry to our oldest members — age segregation in mission teaches the wrong lessons.
Our teens and college students desperately need as many adult examples of Christ-like living as possible. Not just the youth minister. Not just the parents. Not just the campus minister. Not just the volunteers in the program. The entire church.
For the teens to see church as something they should be a part of when they become college students and adults, they need to see the church as the best possible place – the only place – to learn to be like Jesus.
The path to maturity
When we begin to think in these terms, our entire approach to church changes.
Our teens and college students need to see that the older members are more like Jesus than anyone else. If we were actually approaching church right, and if everyone was growing more and more like Jesus every day, then we oldest members would be — by far — our least selfish, least demanding, and least self-interested members. We’d be the first to die for others. We’d be the most passionate for the lost, for those in poverty, and for orphans. Are we?
We say this, not to point a finger at our members but at ourselves as leaders. We have members of every age who are remarkable examples of Christ-like-ness, but to the extent anyone here is not on the path to becoming more like Jesus, it’s the fault of the leadership — and that’s us.
And we repent. And we apologize. And we’re trying to do better.
And that means we’re holding ourselves and everyone here to a higher standard. We’ve stopped appealing to people to act out of self-interest. Rather, we’re appealing to the need to serve others. This should be the only motivation we need. This is why we signed the covenant and asked you to sign the covenant as part of our visioning process this spring.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross for fun, fellowship, and entertainment. He did it for love. He already had heaven. He gave up heaven and died on a cross for no reason other than the joy of serving others. That’s the kind of God we worship. And that’s what it means to be a disciple. We have to want to be like Jesus more than anything.
Ending age segregation
We are facing a crisis in our churches because there’s a problem with youth ministry that was created by a problem with adult ministry. And that same problem hurts our campus ministry and our singles ministry. And it hurts our ministry to our oldest members and to our young marrieds.
It hurts us all because age segregation causes us to think in terms of our age group, our needs, our agenda, and our preferences. If we break out of our silos and spend more time across age lines, we’ll learn to love those younger and older than us, and our priorities will change.
If some of our 70-year old members would volunteer in the teen program, becoming surrogate grandparents for the teens, then the teens would care more about our older members and our older members would care more about our teens.
Now, we’ll still have some age-related events. Teens and college students and singles and every age group need to have some events and classes just for them. But we don’t need for all events to be age segregated — and mission, that is, outreach activities, should rarely be age segregated.
Our events will still be fun, too. We need both fun and mission because families have fun together and families serve Jesus together — and we are a family.
Nearly every American church of any size is age segregated from top to bottom. And churches across the country are just now beginning to see this as a problem. That means we have next to no examples for how to do this.
And so we’re forced to try out ideas to see what works. And everything we try is going to seem unnatural because what feels “natural” is how we’ve always done things. But we need to let the Spirit define what is “natural” for our community.
So we need to try out ideas, experiment, evaluate, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. We have to be patient and generous, realizing that we may pour ourselves into some idea that fails. But we must be faithful to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
And so get ready for the trauma of change, the discomfort of having to deal with people older and younger than us who aren’t entirely like us, and having the comfortable, natural rhythms of church life disrupted. That’s the downside.
But the upside is —
- Getting to spend time with older and younger members, learning from each other and sharing each other’s passions
- Seeing our teens and college students mature in the faith and grow into great Christian servants and leaders
- Seeing our congregation become even more unified and the love we share become even more intense
- Seeing the power of God’s Spirit within us unleashed as we serve and share Jesus with the community that surrounds
- Being transformed as we become more and more like Jesus by serving as he served.
Finally, here are some specific examples of how things will change over time —
- Sunday morning classes will remain age segregated, but this coming year, the adult groups will invite teens and college students into their groups to share a weekly time of fellowship, study, and ministry.
- Every year there will be mission trips that will be multi-age. There will be no teen-only trips.
- Don’t be surprised if you see our ministers leading in areas outside their assigned age group.
- Our children’s and youth ministries will walk alongside parents to help them share their faith with their children. We’ll teach parents how to teach their children that church isn’t just for kids.
- Parents will be encouraged to bring their children with them as they minister — when it’s appropriate.
- Not all our teens have parents active in church. And so we need some adults who don’t have teenage children to mentor these teens in the faith just as their physical parents would.
- At times, the entire congregation will be invited to join the teenagers or college students in activities that might seem a little juvenile to the adults. But that’s what families do for children.
We’re all brothers and sisters, and so the teens and college students are all our nieces and nephews. We’re family.